Student Pugwash conference
June 28-July 4, 1999
Education, Ethics, and Science working group

The ethical implications of technology on education

By
Netiva Caftori
Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU)
And
 Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR)
n-caftori@neiu.edu
http://www.neiu.edu/~ncaftori

Computers by their nature lend themselves to storing more information,
retrieving it faster and connecting it to other associated data. Our
privacy is constantly being invaded by spam (unwanted and unsolicited
email), use of cookies to track our surfing on the Internet without our
permission or knowledge, viruses, plus the unauthorized usage of
databases.  It is no wonder that invasion of privacy would be one of the
most important ethical problems we face nowadays.  Freedom of speech, on
the other hand, is also being attacked on many grounds, some legitimate,
some not so.
In the realm of education these same issues and others present potential
problems: From copyright to plagiarism to filtering to invasive
advertising, we are faced with many decisions we are not quite prepared to
deal with.

Examples:
 On the one hand, 'Net commerce requires securing users privacy to
succeed. Yet commerce is also insisting on expanding its own push onto our
computer screens. A front-page story in the San Jose Mercury news appeared
recently, telling of a new huckster invasion of our schools. The company
is ZapMe Corp. It offers fifteen Pentium-II computers for free to schools,
providing Internet access and maintenance. The catch is that there is a
portion of the screen that is dedicated to advertising. The advertisers
can collect data on how the students are using the computers.
http://www.mercurycenter.com/svtech/news/indepth/docs/zapme032299.htm 
This intrusive advertising (now combined with interactive surveillance) is
justified as a benefit for the Info-Poor, according to the SJ Mercury.
This equalizer argument will probably be seen again -- it helps to justify
ads, surveillance, and even spam. Surveys routinely show that the
Info-poor are less concerned with privacy than are the Info-rich. It is
unfortunate that these Info-poor kids, who already have a low concern for
privacy, will have their expectation of privacy further eroded in school
by this socialization of surveillance. 

q Filtering is seen by some as a powerful tool for protecting children
from online pornography and by others as "censorware".  Internet content
filters have generated much controversy, debate, and confusion.
While some stand-alone systems claim to filter other parts of the
Internet, most content filters are focused on the World-Wide-Web.  Given
the varied technical nature of the protocols involved, it's likely that
filtering tools will do well with some of these, and poorly with others.
For example, filtering software can easily block access to newsgroups with
names like "alt.sex".  However, current technology cannot identify the
presence of explicit photos in a file that's being transferred via FTP.
PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection)-based systems currently
only filter web sites.  See http://www.cpsr.org/filters/faq.html.

q At the end of the 1997-98 session, Congress passed the Digital
Millennium Copyright Act.  The Digital Future Coalition has critiqued the
bill.  One little-known provision protects system administrators from
liability for infringing content placed by users on their sites without
their knowledge -- but the administrators have to file with the Copyright
Office to get that protection.  As passed, the bill lacks some of the more
onerous provisions of proposed copyright law; while public sharing of
information ("fair use") is still weakened, librarians are satisfied with
the bill.  See
http://www.cpsr.org/cpsr/nii/cyber-rights/web/current-copyright.html


Summary of immediate problems: 
 "Commercialization of education." By this I mean the willingness of some
computer companies to give away hardware and even Internet access so long
as the school allows the student to be exposed to advertising.  The trade
off of free hardware/software just for the cost of exposing kids to
advertising is very tempting to school board members who want to see their
schools brought up to date without dealing with tax issues. It will likely
have a bigger effect on poor school districts and schools within poverty
zones.
 Filtering data before it arrives to our schools and libraries: More good
data is blocked by this technique than bad data kept out.  There are other
ways to educate out youth than impose these restrictions on access.
 Plagiarism is made easier with the readily available spectrum of
possibilities for resources.  Is the job of the professor to detect such
crimes or is it to see that the composition is good, the point is made and
that credit is given to those deserving it?  I have no data to back this
up.
 Copyright issues: With so much material put on the web for everyone to
grab, fair use is no longer automatic.  Educators face more legal issues
than ever before.
 Being overwhelmed with information.  The web is no library.  On one hand
it is hard to get exactly what you search for.  On the other hand, there
is so much out there.  Unlike the library, there is no security that what
you read on the web is accurate.  The fallacy that everything in print is
fact is greater in the age of cyberspace.  How do we teach our students on
the usage of the Internet?
 Endless pursuit: Students come to class more tired than ever before
after a long night surfing on the 'Net.  Assignments are poorly done.
Time seems of the essence more than ever before.  I see this as a major
problem.  Here too, no hard data, just my own observations.
 Inability to teach about encryption in our schools (still a court
battle) as it is still considered a weapon.
 Lack of access to the Information highway by all.

Conclusion:
Some of the above issues have certain easy remedies.  Others face battles
in congress, and debates among concerned citizen.  CPSR for one works
toward guarding our basic rights, preventing abuse by spreading the word
and informing the public and policy makers of the potential hazards of
technology as well as its benefits, and pursuing universal access for all
to technology, as information through technology can bring power.  Check
http://www.cpsr.org.  Note that the problems mentioned have implications
throughout the world, in underdeveloped as well as developed countries.